The James Clayton Column: Martin Scorsese’s antiheroes

In the wake of The Wolf Of Wall Street, James considers the compelling antiheroes of Martin Scorsese's movies...

“Jimmy the Gent was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.” So says Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and I find myself doing the same thing whenever I watch a Martin Scorsese picture. Marty – a man who nearly became a priest before pursuing a career in film – makes really good movies about really bad people (or just ‘slightly bad’ or ‘morally conflicted’ people).

I don’t think any other director inspires sympathy for the Devil as stylishly and effectively as the maestro. Make your way through Scorsese’s considerable back catalogue and you find compelling antiheroes and appealing villains all over the show. Goodfellas‘ Jimmy the Gent and, indeed, Henry Hill are just two cases cracking knuckles in a crowded pantheon – all of them aggressive males who have dirty minds, do dirty deeds and distort the moral compasses of all who are drawn to their magnetic persona.

Like long tracking shots, cinephile in-references and classic rock numbers on the soundtrack, these protagonists are an auterial trademark – an essential part of the movie’s identity as a Scorsese piece. Now, after family-friendly adventure Hugo, Marty’s back in murkier territory and adding another face to his redoubtable rogue’s gallery with The Wolf Of Wall Street. The eponymous Wolf is Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and though I’ve not seen the film yet, already I know that I both despise him and am fascinated by him.

My personal prejudices being what they are, I’m aware that the idea of me empathising with a shady Wall Street stockbroker is more of an unlikely proposition than empathising with, say, a brute boxer, a street gangster or an alienated insomniac cabbie with a death wish and a homicide plan. Perhaps Marty has skewered my own moral compass here, but I can happily grant Jake LaMotta, Mean Streets’ Charlie and Travis Bickle a pass (with a few caveats). Financial fraudster and amoral stock market manipulator Belfort is far more dubious. (Say what you like about Travis Bickle. At least he had principles and earned an honest wage, working hard in a legitimate occupation.)

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Still, I’m confident that DiCaprio can elicit some empathy (or at least, receptive interest) for Belfort because he’s got form when it comes to playing over-privileged, slightly unappealing-albeit-actually-quite-appealing leading men. Through his charm and dramatic performance, DiCaprio grounds these figures with a human relatability, gaining our sympathy and pity. (Slaver Calvin Candie of Django Unchained is possibly the exception, because no one’s crying when that bad mother gets ‘D’Artagnanated’.)

Master mind-criminal Cobb of Inception is a case in point, and so is The Great Gatsby – DiCaprio effectively selling the rich-as-Midas King of the Roaring 20s as a tragic romantic victim of false fantasy. He’s perfectly cast as literature’s ultimate embodiment of “Money can’t buy you love” and there’s clear similarity between Jay Gatsby and Howard Hughes – the infamous mogul portrayed by DiCaprio in The Aviator.

That brings us back to Martin Scorsese and his antiheroes. All of DiCaprio’s collaborations with the bushy-browed director – Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs Of New York, Billy Costigan in The Departed and Marshal Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island – have an antihero-ish aspect to them. They are all marked by darkness, but the most compelling and challenging is probably real-life figure Hughes. In The Aviator, Scorsese’s direction and DiCaprio’s acting combine to make the eccentric individual a believable, authentic personality who is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic.

The high-flying billionaire film enthusiast (I’m talking about Hughes here. Marty’s net worth is only in the millions) is rendered as a figure to hold in awe. He’s a spirited, bold innovator to cheer on as he goes up against the obstacles. He’s a tragic figure to pity as we bear witness while obsessive compulsive disorder cripples him. Hughes is also a horrible human being – a cruel control freak whose neurotic, paranoid personality repels all around and propels him into a spiral of social isolation. He’s attractive and alienating all at once – an out-of-touch almighty one humbled in our eyes by his human fallibility and all his facets are dramatically represented in deft, sensitive fashion.

The richest man in the world and downbeat streetcrawler Travis Bickle may not appear to have much in common but I see shared DNA in The Aviator and Taxi Driver. I also see it in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and Goodfellas to name a select few from Scorsese’s spectacular filmography.

Some are more straightforwardly sympathetic. Some rack up crimes that cross the line into unforgivable territory (domestic and sexual abuse and murder that’s unjustifiable no matter how you try and square it). Still, they’re all similar in that they are male leads existing inside shades of grey – walking contradictions that command our attention and confuse the hell out of our sense of right and wrong.

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Most likely, upon seeing the word “antihero” your memory has probably conjured up images of action heroes with eyepatches and .44 Magnums. I’d argue, however, that the best examples of the character type appear in Scorsese’s works. If you acknowledge that antiheroes are more than just edgy looks, a few sharp lines and some badass attitude you realise that Marty’s movies have contributed some of the most well-defined and potent of the protagonist class to pop culture.

Scorsese is the true champion of this trope. Survey the leads of his flicks and you see a clear pattern – they’re all charismatic (or at least, intriguingly idiosyncratic) male outsiders streaked through with ambiguity and problematic character flaws. They’re all obsessively pursuing some nebulous, risky American Dream idealisation and they’re all compromised by self-destructive tendencies, distracting bad influences or both.

The most obvious odd-one-out is Hugo Cabret but I’d argue that the movie named after the orphan boy is actually really all about the filmmaker George Méliès – a screen figure strikingly similar to Howard Hughes and a great grumpy old man antihero in his own right thanks to the touching portrayal provided by Sir Ben Kingsley. Méliès, Hughes and Henry Hill make an impression in effective biopics and, on the fictional end, Travis Bickle goes down in history as one of cinema’s all-time great ‘bad-good guys’ atop of a lengthy list of excellent Scorsese antiheroes. The list goes on and is most likely extended by DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort.

All of them are indelible and sublimely appealing and that’s down to Scorsese’s knack for cinematic characterisation. No matter how unseemly or off-kilter these people are, Scorsese brings them to credible life and makes us relate to them. We’re thrust into their visceral, vivid environments and positioned alongside or inside them so we come to experience the world from their perspective – voice-over narration being one device employed repeatedly by the director to achieve this.

Marty makes us understand and thus empathise with these exigent antiheroes. They drive the narrative and even if we manage to maintain a certain amount of disdainful detachment, we can’t help but identify with them.  It doesn’t matter if they’re a gangster, a cop, a cabbie, a failed comedian or an aloof creative genius – everyone can recognise something of themselves in these protagonists.

We are with them as underdogs and outsiders dreaming of bigger things. We admire their balls, their audacity and boldness. We identify with their rage, their greed and their ruthless resolve. We sympathise as we experience their struggles and consequently can comprehend their movement towards desperate measures (Rupert Pupkin’s kidnap plot being the prime example).

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Through his leading men, Scorsese gets us to examine ourselves as human beings and explore our own subconscious desires, motivations and true nature. Take Henry Hill as a test case and think on his introductory speech, “As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Everyone in the audience shares similar outlaw fantasies and dreams of flying in the face of convention to live large as a maverick antihero. That’s why we’re rooting for the bad guys in these movies.

There’s also, understandably, something very Catholic in Martin Scorsese’s approach to characters. Everyone is ultimately a sinner yet there’s hope that all can become saintly, shining icons of goodness. The story and gripping drama lies in the protagonist’s soulsearching journey and the battle of innate wicked streaks and dark temptations against good intentions and blissful prospects.

Martin Scorsese didn’t become a priest so his moral explorations are performed through the medium of cinema. The “You don’t make up for your sins in church” mantra of Mean Streets rings true when you reflect on all of Marty’s really good movies about bad guys. You may not exactly be making up for your sins in the cinema (you do that in the streets and at home), but through powerful motion pictures you’re facing them and meditating on them. What’s more you’re be facing them with fantastic, fascinating characters constructed so stylishly and effectively by a masterful filmmaker – the greatest living evangelist for motion pictures as a religion.

Scorsese’s antiheroes are the beating heart in the middle of his cinematic morality mazes and no other filmmaker has ever provided us with so many of such high calibre. No other filmmaker has ever stirred up so much sympathy for the Devil.

James Clayton is the kind of guy who roots for the bad guys at the movies. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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